An Indictment of Hearing Aid Marketing: We Stink at It!Chris Peng
So yeah, there are a lot of us that do pretty well, we sell some hearing aids, make a good living, maybe even more than that. But on a broader scale, what is really going on?
My contemplative nature drives me to look deeper into most everything that I participate in, and having been in the industry for 21 years, I have had a lot of time to think about it.
What is it you ask? It is the fact that compared to any other technology driven industry, we have an absolutely abysmal level of market penetration. Furthermore, though our technological advances have given us opportunities to do thing that we were just hoping for and dreaming of 15 years ago, the return percentage is higher than it was when I came into the industry in 1995. How is this possible? I believe much of it comes back to how we market.
To make sense of this, I believe we must first look at the numbers. When the sales results were tallied for last year, 2015, there were several articles in the journals trumpeting our success, and patting our industry on it’s collective back for a 7.2% increase over the previous year, 2014. Which totaled a whopping 3.36 million units sold for the year of 2015 within the United States. Whoopee! Gaze upon our success and marvel! Or not. Before we get too full of ourselves, there are more numbers to consider.
According to the NIDCD, there are approximately, 28.8 million people in the United States could benefit from the use of hearing aids. Most certainly, there are a great number of those people could not afford, have no insurance, or otherwise have no means to obtain or purchase hearing aids, and that fact may allow us to save face to some degree.
Even if we go easy on ourselves, and cut that number in half, (14.4 million) then subtract another, rather generous exemption of say, 25% (3.6 million) of those as patients who have hearing aids that are they feel function effectively enough that they aren’t in the market, that is a potential untapped customer base of 10.8 million users. And if we once again give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, and imagine that ALL of the units sold in 2015 were sold to first time users (which is a huge exaggeration at best,) at a 71% binaural rate, we collectively sold hearing aids to approximately 2,322,000 (two million three hundred and twenty two thousand) people. Approximately 19% (441,180) of which returned their hearing aids for credit. Leaving us with an overall market penetration of (drum roll please) 17.4 percent! Yahoo! Or not.
What is at the core of such a poor performance? Let’s take a look at some of what passes for marketing within our industry.
“This new technology is designed to improve speech understanding in all situations, especially in noisy places like restaurants or crowded rooms”
On the surface, that makes sense, or does it? It may be “designed” that way, and to a software engineer who can show in a controlled environment, on a plastic head, in a test chamber, that the phenomenal algorithm he or she designed can do just that, it makes perfect sense. But people don’t have plastic heads, and don’t live in test chambers, so in real life, not so much.
I don’t know much, but one thing I am certain of is that our shortcomings as an industry has driven the delay in patients getting help: Most people wait so long that their results are drastically reduced, especially in noisy environments. The average delay has stayed relatively the same as long as I have been in the business: 9 years.
That is 9 years (as an average) that a potential patient will live with enough hearing loss to cause difficulties before the even walk into one of our offices, or call one of us to look for help. During which time the hearing system is losing acuity, and their ability to understand is degrading. As such, it is very difficult at best to give someone like this good word discrimination, comfortable listening, and reasonably good understanding in noisy environments.
“Imagine a hearing aid that automatically adapts to your surroundings and reflects your specific lifestyle. Imagine a hearing aid that is so pleasant to wear that it gives a new meaning to the phrase “customer satisfaction.” Well, imagine no more – With this breakthrough technology comes the first hearing aid ever developed to address your most important needs.”
So pleasant to wear that they give new meaning to the phrase customer satisfaction? Not so fast my friends. I tell all of my first time patients, and many returning patients upgrading from older technology, that they WILL NOT LIKE THEIR HEARING AIDS! during the first few days to a couple of weeks anyway.
I find that the descriptions of what they are hearing that patients often convey at their first follow up appointment, lead me to believe that the auditory system is literally in shock because of all the new information (not really new, just things they used to hear that they haven’t in a long time) that a high quality digital product can provide. Much like waking up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water, and turning the light on, the contrast between the two seems overwhelming for a short time.
I believe that the inclination to make such lofty promises, and hesitancy to tell patients what they should really expect, is, perhaps, the main driver behind the high return rates, and a big part of why so many people choose not to take action earlier to onset of hearing loss: I.E. The expectations created by our marketing promise the moon, when many times we can’t get out of orbit.
This leads us to another problem: People don’t come and see us because their neighbor got hearing aids, with expectations, based on how they were marketed and sold, that the hearing aids would do things that they may, or may not, and in the neighbor’s case, did not.
Remember, human nature dictates that people who are unhappy with something will tell ten people. If they are happy with something, they will tell one, maybe two. Also, when you are selling a product that no one really wants to solve a problem that most won’t admit, most are looking for another excuse NOT to get the help that they really need.
So, what is the answer? I could get into details about different approaches I have seen work, in my own practice, but that would be like giving away the special sauce recipe, and special sauce don’t come cheap!
In a general sense, the manufacturers need to take the lead on this. Many of those hired to create the direction of our marketing campaigns have never done a hearing test, recommended a hearing aid to a patient, or covered an objection to make a sale. They have never had to interpret what the patient is describing when they complain about something they are hearing, or figure out what to do about it when they do, and they most certainly have never had to try to hold a sale together so they could draw a paycheck this week when the patient is dead set on returning their hearing aids because they didn’t live up to their expectations.
I believe that the major manufacturers should quit with the competitive urination (a polite way of saying something my father used to say a lot: having a p_____ng contest.) Stop with the whole:” Mine is bigger! Ours is faster! We have the most bands! Our algorithms are so smart that they can carry on a conversation with you!” etc, etc ad infinitum.
The truth is that if any one of us was blindfolded, and listened to the best hearing aids that all the top manufacturers have to offer, one after another, back to back, we probably couldn’t tell a nickel’s worth of difference between them. Those who really care about growing our industry for the future need to begin working together to change the perception of hearing aids, and the expectations of those who choose to pursue help through the use of their products.
While the technology makes it possible to do things we only dreamed of when I first came into the industry in 1995, it should not be the main thing we use to drive patients through our doors.
Imagine what would be possible if the major players in our industry would all cooperate and throw in together and create a ten million dollar public education campaign to reform how people view hearing loss, and hearing aids, and help to set proper expectations within out potential patient pool. Is it possible that we might, instead of fighting over the same small piece of the pie so we can brag about our market share, that we could grow the pie to two or three times the size it is? If we could achieve this, we would all have more business than we could handle, and millions more people could benefit, improving the quality of their lives through the use of properly fit amplification.
I know that the marketing can not bear the whole weight of our poor performance as an industry. At street level, the dispenser, and the audiologist alike have fallen victim to trusting technology to do all the work (a topic for a future article) and that needs to change. But, perhaps, if the approach were different further up the chain, we would feel more free to tell people what they should really expect, and what they shouldn’t, and in so doing create a better experience for millions more potential patients.
P.S. The numbers found herein all came from statistics compiled by the HIA (http://www.hearing.org/) NIDCD( https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/) and Market Trak Publications (http://www.betterhearing.org/hearingpedia/bhi-archives/marketrak-publications.) This being my first submission, I couldn’t figure out how to put those cool source numbers that sit above the quotation. I’ll do better next time. 😉
by Eric CobbManager at Taylor Hearing Center